03/13/2014 2:37PM

Jay Hovdey: Stulls lighting up marquees everywhere


This is a big week for Tom and Debi Stull of Tommy Town Thoroughbreds. Their investment is considerable. Their name is on the product, with a lot of talented people in the mix. And yet there is no guarantee of a happy ending. On the contrary, such endeavors fail miserably far more often than they succeed.

They are also running a horse in a Grade 1 race.

Let Faith Arise, second in the La Canada and Santa Maria this year, will carry the Tommy Town colors Saturday at Santa Anita in the $350,000 Santa Margarita Invitational, traditionally the high point of the meet for older fillies and mares. Her opposition includes La Canada winner Spellbound and Santa Maria winner Iotapa, as well as Black-Eyed Susan winner Fiftyshadesofhay and the Argentine Group 1 winner Miss Serendipity.

(Those familiar with the history of the Santa Margarita might rue the lack of true marquee names, but the recent California landscape in the division suffers in comparison with the days of Zenyatta, Life Is Sweet, St Trinians, and Switch. These things go in cycles.)

Once the Santa Margarita is in the books, the Stulls can start holding their collective breath as executive producers of the movie “50 to 1” – the story of Mine That Bird’s improbable 2009 Kentucky Derby triumph – scheduled to premiere next Wednesday in Albuquerque, N.M., before a multimarket opening over the ensuing weeks.

The box-office opposition for the PG-13-rated “50 to 1” already includes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” from Wes Anderson and the inexplicably popular “300: Rise of an Empire” splatterfest (Oh, Eva Green. I get it.). Waiting in the wings are entries from such powerful franchises as the Muppets and Tyler Perry.

“50 to 1” stars Skeet Ulrich (he was one of “The Newton Boys” with Matthew McConaughey in a flick worth seeing), Christian Kane (part of TV’s entertaining “Leverage”), and William Devane, who’s been in everything from “Knots Landing” to “24” on TV and delivered the goods in such unforgettable films as “Rolling Thunder” and “Marathon Man.”

The team behind Let Faith Arise includes Jerry Hollendorfer and Corey Nakatani, who has ridden her in both recent starts. Hollendorfer has been increasingly impressed with the filly since her return to training from an illness last fall and has promised the Stulls she will win one of these sooner than later.

“Let Faith Arise has been a real surprise, the way she’s turned around these last six months,” Tom Stull said this week. “I had no idea we had anything like this, but Jerry did. Then again, he gets to see her every day.”

Good point. There comes a time when every horse owner has to trust somebody, and that somebody might as well be the Hall of Fame trainer you’ve hired to do the job. On the other hand, the Stulls were not exactly in the market to back a feature film when Jim Wilson, one of their clients at Tommy Town Thoroughbreds in the Santa Ynez Valley, handed them the script he had written that was inspired by Mine That Bird and his New Mexico connections.

“It was one of those things that when you sat down to read it, you didn’t stop until you were done,” said Debi Stull. “It left you with a good feeling. And Jim gets it, which is good.”

“He’s got a good track record of making good movies,” Tom Stull noted, referring primarily to Wilson’s Best Picture Oscar as producer of “Dances With Wolves,” directed by and starring Kevin Costner.

Part of Wilson’s pitch was a video replay of Mine That Bird’s last-to-first fairy tale at Churchill Downs at odds of 50-1. Mine That Bird, Canada’s champion 2-year-old of 2008, was coming out of two so-so races in early 2009 at New Mexico’s Sunland Park for owners Mark Allen (Kane) and Leonard Blach (Devane) and trainer Chip Woolley (Ulrich).

“Except for maybe Secretariat’s Belmont, that Derby has to be one of the most unbelievable races I’ve ever seen,” Tom Stull said. “To watch that jockey guide his horse inside and out, from so far back, going by the other horses like they were standing still.”

That jockey was Calvin Borel, who stepped up to play Calvin Borel in the movie.

“Tom felt it was important that Calvin was in the movie,” Debi Stull said.

Which is what executive producers who’ve put up their money get to do.

“I don’t normally go out to movies,” Tom Stull said. “We watch here at home, and my wife just brought one home that won those Oscars. What’s it called? Twelve something ...?”

That would be “12 Years a Slave,” which joined “Dances With Wolves” as a Best Picture winner this year, and not exactly what you’d call a feel-good movie.

The Stulls have seen the finished “50 to 1” product and are pleased – a good thing since their names are on the poster for all the world to see.

“I’ve invested in several different things that were kind of out of my league, but it never would of occurred to me to do something like this,” Tom Stull said. “Jim’s put his heart and soul into this movie. I just hope it works out for him ... and me.”